The Bears three-week stint at Olivet Nazarene came to a close yesterday morning with Lovie Smith believing his defense has answered a number of questions they had going into training camp.
"It’s good to get the first training camp under us," Smith said. "I really feel like we’ve made a lot of progress. We have a lot to do (still), but I see the defense taking shape."
In a defense predicated on creating turnovers two of the unit’s best athletes have been sidelined because of injury.
The unit has been without Brian Urlacher since the first day of training camp. Urlacher is still out four to six weeks as previously diagnosed with his pulled hamstring, but it's looking better for the team's star.
"He thinks he's a lot closer, which is good, (and) he doesn't have pain right now," Smith said. "Of course now he's running and it's coming along good for him."
A herniated disk in Jerry Azumah’s neck will sideline him until at least October. Expected to challenge for a starting role, Azumah tied for the team lead in interceptions a year ago and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl as the NFC’s best kick returner.
"As far as playmakers I feel we have a lot on both sides of the football," Smith said. "At this stage it’s as good as I could expect it to be."
In an attempt to jumpstart a struggling pass rush, Smith implemented one of his more drastic changes by flip-flopping his defensive ends. The Bears hope Michael Haynes, who saw limited time as a rookie last season under Dick Jauron and company, can flourish in his new position.
It's one he relished in while starring at Penn State, where Haynes was the 2002 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and had 15 sacks as a senior.
"It's just a thing where over training camp Coach (Lovie Smith) was trying to put everybody in their place," Haynes said. "That's what training camp is for -- to figure out where everybody should be. For me, maybe it's the right side."
Haynes managed just two sacks last year, while Alex Brown had a team-high 5 1/2. Still, the Bears managed a league-low 18 sacks, and Smith -- the former defensive coordinator in St. Louis – has implemented his new system of using faster players at every position.
Under Jauron, the Bears wanted bigger linemen to eat up offensive linemen and let the linebackers make the plays. Under Smith, the Bears want more pressure from the front four, and less blitzing, if possible.
"It's all about being fast," said Bears rookie defensive tackle Tank Johnson, a Gary native. "Once everybody gets their speed going upfield, it's going to be a great defense. (Brian) Urlacher is going to benefit from it as well. There's going to be big seams (to penetrate) because guys are going to be so far upfield."
Brown has been nursing a pulled right calf muscle, and might not be ready until the season opener Sept. 12. Veteran Bryan Robinson has also been seeing time at defensive end, his former position before being pushed inside to defensive tackle.
The Bears host San Francisco at Soldier Field Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. (WCIU-TV, Ch. 26). This will be Haynes' big opportunity to show what he's got on the right side.
"The defensive line has to continue to grow," Smith said. "We have an idea now of who the top guys are; we have to make them better football players right now."